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Big Tech Platforms Have Had a “Profound Negative Effect on Democracy.” Is It Time to Break Them Up?

StoryOctober 23, 2019
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Facebook continues to face growing criticism and demands that it be broken up. Massachusetts senator and Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has repeatedly called for Facebook and other Big Tech companies to be broken up on antitrust grounds. Roger McNamee, a Silicon Valley investor who went from being an early supporter of Facebook to a vocal critic, speaks with us about 2020 candidates’ platforms on Big Tech. Antitrust regulation is “the one issue that seems to cut across the entire political spectrum,” McNamee says. “People of all political stripes understand that there’s a problem here.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: “Nobody Knows” by Roger McNamee, our guest for the hour today, author of Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe. I want to go to last week’s presidential debate in Ohio. This is debate moderator, New York Times reporter Marc Lacey.

MARC LACEY: Let’s turn to the growing concerns over the power of Big Tech companies. Mr. Yang, Senator Warren is calling for companies like Facebook, Amazon and Google to be broken up. Is she right? Does that need to happen?

ANDREW YANG: As usual, Senator Warren is 100% right in diagnosing the problem. There are absolutely excesses in technology, and in some cases having them divest parts of their business is the right move. But we also have to be realistic that competition doesn’t solve all of the problems. It’s not like any of us wants to use the fourth-best navigation app. That would be like cruel and unusual punishment. There’s a reason why no one is using Bing today. Sorry, Microsoft, it’s true. So it’s not like breaking up these Big Tech companies will revive Main Street businesses around the country. … Breaking up the tech companies does nothing to make our kids healthier. What we have to do is we have to home in on the specific problems we’re trying to solve, and use 21st century solutions for 21st century problems. Using a 20th century antitrust framework will not work. We need new solutions and a new toolkit.

MARC LACEY: Thank you. Senator Warren, is Mr. Yang wrong? Your response, please.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: Look, I’m not willing to give up and let a handful of monopolists dominate our economy and our democracy. It’s time to fight back. Think about it this way. When you talk about how it works in competition, about 8%, 9% of all retail sales happen in bricks-and-sticks stores, happen at Walmart. About 49% of all sales online happen in one place. That’s Amazon. It collects information from every little business. And then Amazon does something else: It runs the platform, gets all the information and then goes into competition with those little businesses. Look, you get to be the umpire in the baseball game, or you get to have a team, but you don’t get to do both at the same time. We need to enforce our antitrust laws, break up these giant companies that are dominating — Big Tech, Big Pharma, Big Oil, all of them.

MARC LACEY: Thank you, Senator Warren.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Elizabeth Warren and, before that, Andrew Yang. And now I wanted to go to a clip from earlier this month. The technology website The Verge published a leaked audio recording of Mark Zuckerberg saying an Elizabeth Warren presidency would, quote, “suck” for the company and that he may sue the U.S. government if it attempts to break up Facebook.

MARK ZUCKERBERG: Like Elizabeth Warren, who thinks that the right answer is to break up the companies. You know, if she gets elected president, then I would — I would bet that we will have a legal challenge, and I would bet that we will win the legal challenge. Does that still suck for us? Yeah. I mean, I don’t want to have to, you know, have a major lawsuit against our own government. I mean, that’s not, like, the position that you want to be in when you’re — you know, I mean, it’s like we — we care about our country and, like, want to work with our government and do good things, and — but, look, at the end of the day, if someone’s going to try to threaten something that existential, you go to the mat, and you fight.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s leaked audio recording of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Senator Elizabeth Warren responded on Twitter by writing, quote, “What would really 'suck' is if we don’t fix a corrupt system that lets giant companies like Facebook engage in illegal anticompetitive practices, stomp on consumer privacy rights, and repeatedly fumble their responsibility to protect our democracy.” Earlier this year, Facebook temporarily took down ads by Senator Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign that called for the breakup of Big Tech companies, including Facebook. The ads directed supporters to a petition for Warren’s antitrust proposal. So, Roger McNamee, respond to all of that.

ROGER McNAMEE: So, Amy, the first thing to think about is this: In a country as polarized as the United States is — and it’s arguably as polarized as it’s been since the Civil War — the one issue that seems to cut across the entire political spectrum is this one. People of all political stripes understand that there’s a problem here. They may not understand exactly what the problem is or what to do about it, but they recognize that there’s something wrong here. And this is really encouraging.

So, if you’re me — you’re an activist — I’ve tried to work with policymakers across the full spectrum. And I’ve been very fortunate. The Antitrust Division of the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission, with Trump appointees, have both been surprisingly supportive of looking at antitrust and other regulatory forms here. So that’s good. And relative to Congress, I’ve had lots of people to talk to.

Among the people running for president, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar have shown real leadership on this, but particularly Senator Warren. She has identified this issue from before she was a candidate. In the summer of 2017, we had long conversations about this, and I was simply blown away by the depth of her understanding. Senator Klobuchar, though, has a very clear understanding of the antitrust issues. I think she’s very committed there. I think Cory Booker is a person who has shown a lot of interest in this. And we’re seeing from Senator Sanders now some interest, as well.

There are a couple candidates who really concern me deeply on the issue. Senator Harris, because she’s from California, I think, feels a loyalty to Facebook and Google that’s kept her from being a leader on this issue. And I’m deeply concerned about the relationship between Mayor Buttigieg and Facebook, in particular. You may have seen the story this week that Mark Zuckerberg was surreptitiously helping the Buttigieg campaign hire key personnel. Now, this is going on at precisely the same time that Mark is openly criticizing Senator Warren, and in which Senator Warren has correctly posted ads on Facebook that are mocking Facebook’s policy of allowing falsehoods.

And I look at this whole thing, and I’m deeply concerned, because there is a lot of evidence that Facebook and Google, even if they do nothing conscious to affect the outcome, will still have a profound impact, because they do amplify the most negative voices in any political struggle more than they amplify the others. In 2016, there was a message sent by a senior Facebook executive to a former employee, that said that Trump had had a 17-to-one advantage of reach per dollar spent for his advertising on Facebook over Clinton. Now, some of that was just because they were clever. But 17 to one, you don’t get that just by being clever. A lot of that has to do with the content of the messaging. The fact that it was filled with disinformation, conspiracy theories and hate speech really helped those messages spread, not because everybody always liked them, but because it made people angry and so they shared them a lot.

And when I look at this in a political sense, I think that Facebook owes the country more than just its best effort. It actually should be held accountable for the outcome of this election. And in my opinion, if the company fails to protect us in 2020, that we should be open to notions like shutting the platform down. I think the same thing should be true of Google. I mean, these countries [sic] had a profound negative effect on democracy, not just in the United States, not just in the United Kingdom, but in Brazil and many other countries. And in my parents’ generation, any company that had enabled the Russians to interfere in a U.S. election, I suspect, would have been shut down. And it wouldn’t shock me if the executives had been criminally prosecuted, because we didn’t allow foreign countries to undermine our democracy. And yet these companies seem to think that that’s acceptable. And as Americans, we should be better than that.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you quickly, before the end of this hour — Libra, the cryptocurrency of Facebook, that is why, ostensibly, Mark Zuckerberg is on Capitol Hill today testifying before the Foreign Services Committee, though I assume they’re going to ask a lot more questions than that. Briefly explain that.


AMY GOODMAN: And say what you think congressmembers should be asking.

ROGER McNAMEE: So, Libra is a cryptocurrency designed to compete against the dollar, the euro, Swiss franc and the yen as one of the reserve currencies of the world. It is a terrible idea. When you think about national sovereignty for the United States or any other country, it’s based on two things: the control of legitimate force — the military and police — but also on control of currency.

If private corporations are allowed to create their own currency, that operates globally, what I think you’ll see happen is that rich people will move their transactions onto the cryptocurrency so they can escape detection, escape taxation and escape currency controls. That is so destabilizing for the rest of us. It should not be permitted. And my hope is that the members of Congress will blow up Libra in the first two minutes of the hearing and then move on to the dozens of other issues that Facebook should be legitimately forced to answer for.

AMY GOODMAN: The most important question, Roger?

ROGER McNAMEE: In my mind is: “Mark, should we allow you to continue to operate if there is any interference at all after 2020?”

AMY GOODMAN: And are you still invested in Facebook? You were one of its early investors.

ROGER McNAMEE: So, Amy, I made a conscious choice when I began my activism to hold what remained of my position, which was substantial to me, because I didn’t want to be accused of speaking negatively about a stock I had sold. That was a year and half ago. I have recently unloaded almost all of my remaining position. There are a few shares left. But I do not want to be a shareholder any longer. And, you know, I think that —

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there. I want to thank you very much, Roger McNamee, for joining us.

ROGER McNAMEE: My pleasure. It’s a great thrill.

AMY GOODMAN: Author of Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe_. We’ll bring you Part 2to at democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman.

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